Fintan O’Toole: We should not replace one form of forgetting with another

Commemorating Rising should not be at the cost of amnesia about the failure of its ideals

Is it bad manners, in this week of commemoration, to think about a kid born in Ireland in 1916, a real child of the nation? I can't help thinking of one particular nobody.

He was so much a nobody that when he set himself on fire on Hampstead Heath in London the year after the vainglorious 50th anniversary commemorations of the Rising, there was nobody to claim his body.

He was eventually identified only by a scrap of a postcard addressed to one of the few people in Ireland who ever listened to his story, the dissident senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington.

Peter Tyrrell was one of the 1 per cent, which is to say the one child out of every hundred, who ended up in an Irish industrial school. He was born in 1916 on a small farm near Ahascragh, Co Galway.


There were 10 children and they lived in abject poverty in a windowless shack. In January 1924, the infant Irish State took an interest in the family's plight. The new Garda Síochána came and took away six of the children. Peter and his three older brothers were sent to the notorious industrial school in Letterfrack.

Though the school was run by the Christian Brothers, it is important to remember that Peter was a child of the State. It was the State that used its new independence to send him to hell.

In the letters he sent to Sheehy Skeffington in the 1950s, later edited by Diarmuid Whelan and published as Founded on Fear, Tyrrell recalled his arrival at Letterfrack: "All at once a Christian Brother comes running out, he is chasing the young children with a very long stick and beating them on the backs of the legs. We can now hear the screams of the little boys, some of them are only six years old."

What struck Tyrrell was how aged the kids looked: “Most of the children are terribly pale, and their faces are drawn and haggard . . .The children of Letterfrack are like old men, most of their eyes are sunk in their heads and are red from crying. Their cheekbones are sticking out.”

In those vivid letters, Tyrrell tried to convey to the authorities of church and State what he had seen and experienced: the constant, routinely savage beatings and floggings for offences such as waking up too early (“It is a crime to be awake before we are called”); the screams of children being assaulted; the Brothers’ habit of grooming some boys as “pets”; the Brother who takes “boys to his room at night to commit improper offences”; the bitter cold in winter; the “disgusting” food.

Tyrrell joined the British army during the second World War and was captured by the Germans. He writes: “Life here in Stalag 11B Fallingsbostel during the last months of the war is hard and unpleasant. Yet it is heaven on Earth compared to my life” at Letterfrack.

Awkward truth

It is comforting to think that none of this would have happened if the idealists who staged the Rising had gone on to run the State. But the awkward truth is that those who ran the State were veterans of the Rising.

In July 1955, when Sheehy Skeffington (whose own father was murdered by a British army officer during Easter Week) raised the question of the vicious beating of children in schools, the minister of education, Richard Mulcahy, dismissed such concerns as a "disgusting proceeding . . . by people who are not of this country or its traditions . . . people reared in an alien and completely unIrish atmosphere". Mulcahy, of course, had fought (very effectively) in 1916.

Peter Tyrrell was no more typical of the children of 1916 than were those who grew up with love and security and opportunity. But he was no more untypical either.

For a very significant part of the population, Irish freedom meant the freedom to emigrate, usually to England. For others, of whom Tyrrell was one, it meant the freedom to be locked up in an industrial school, a Magdalene laundry, a mother-and-baby home or a mental hospital.

Free Ireland sustained a vast infrastructure of enslavement for those of its unwanted people who could not or would not do the decent thing and leave.

Noble aspects

And to remember Peter Tyrrell is not to forget the noble aspects of those who staged the Rising: Patrick Pearse’s innovative passion for child-centred education or James Connolly’s war on the poverty that lay behind Tyrrell’s nightmare.

It is just to say that we should not replace one form of forgetting with another. We are, rightly, shrugging off amnesia about the Rising and accepting it is a fact of our history. But we should not do so at the cost of amnesia about the terrible failure of its ideals.

“Free” Ireland was a terrible place for many of the citizens who most needed a real revolution. And an Ireland that has almost doubled consistent child poverty has no right to forget how horribly mocked were the promises of the first Dáil that the physical and spiritual welfare of children would be the first duty of the Republic.